I walked into the living room to see my son playing on his XBox 360. With his headphones on and an intense look on his face, he was lost in a world filled with armed alien soldiers. Out of nowhere he said, “No dude, don’t go that way. Follow me.” Only he wasn’t talking to me.
Curious, I asked, “Who are you talking to, Bailey?”
“It’s Mason. He’s done with homework so we teamed up to play Halo,” he remarked without ever taking his eyes off of the screen.
My son stated his comment as if it were perfectly normal to meet up with one of his buddies through the internet to play a game together while talking through headphones connected to a gaming system. Normal? This technology didn’t even exist for gamers five years ago.
My daughter is not immune to the new normal either. She can have a conversation with our family while simultaneously watching a movie on a laptop and texting ongoing conversations with multiple friends on a cell phone. All at the same time. She calls it “catching up with my friends,” even though no words are actually being spoken.
Being part of community, desiring authenticity, and having a strong sense of self-awareness are all core values for teenagers. But the way they go about expressing these values has greatly changed for the current generation of teens. And these changes can all be traced back to technology.
Teens now live in a world dominated by Twitter, where communication happens 140 characters at a time. Posting hundreds of prom photos on Instagram is the new way of sharing a significant life experience. All of their interests and group affiliations are listed on Facebook. Writing down deep secrets in a paperback journal is a thing of the past. Now every event of their lives are on display on Tumblr. Instead of sleepovers, Facetime or Skype facilitate group hangouts. Smartphones are portals to instantly upload their embarrassing moments to YouTube. And all of this is part of achieving community in the new normal.
Recognizing the Tension
On the surface, it may appear that your teen’s life is more fractured because of technology. But for them, this way of life is the only thing they’ve ever known. For you as a parent, it seems that the world has changed quickly. Not many of us had home computers or car phones as teens. In contrast, your child has never experienced life without them. However, the sheer quantity of technology in a teen’s life can strain communication between you and them, and it can cause their lives to become unbalanced. That tension requires you to adjust how you communicate with each other, and it requires your teen to be accountable to having good boundaries with technology.
Today’s teen lives in a culture that expects them to be always “on” and available. The average texting teenager now loses one hour of sleep at night because they can’t turn off their phones. They feel pressure to be connected. This pressure can cause them to become self-focused. To counteract the pressure, they may need you to help them find times for quietness and rest. As a safeguard, perhaps you could put away tech devices while at the dinner table. Ask your son or daughter to turn off screens when the two of your are talking. Have them leave their phone charging in the kitchen at night. These steps can help them shut down for a period of time.
Secondly, there is a loss of privacy happening in teen culture. Even if your teen doesn’t share every snapshot of their life online, chances are they have friends who have uploaded plenty of pictures of your child. The casual sharing of information has led to an expectation that your teen should share all of who they are with complete strangers. This is greatly reshaping how teenagers see their sexual identity. Twenty-two percent of girls have post or texted nude/seminude photos of themselves. Likewise, 40 percent of boys have sent sexually suggestive messages to someone else. The rapid-fire methods of texting, posting, and tweeting gives teens little time to consider long-term consequences of their communication habits.
You have an opportunity to shape and influence your teenager in the world of technology and communication. The goal is not to fight against texting, posting, and tweeting. These devices are going to be the primary means of communication in your teenager’s life for the foreseeable future. Instead, you get to help teach moderation, discernment, and propriety in what your teen posts. Ask your teenager to take one minute to reread a post or tweet before hitting submit. Explain to her that everything she does online is creating a “digital resume” of herself for others to read. Have her consider the way she communicates in light of Romans 12:1-2. How might it look for a Christian teenager to use all of the technology that is available to her, yet still remain holy and “set apart?” [Maybe use Romans 12:1-2 as a pull-quote? “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”
Using Technology for Good
Frustration doesn’t even begin to describe how it can feel as a parent when you can’t get your teenager’s attention because of those tiny devices causing their faces to glow. All of the technology in your teen’s life can cause agitation, anger, and even jealousy. Ironically, your teen has similar negative emotions, but for different reasons.
Chances are, your child has sneaking suspicion that the real reason you gave them a cell phone was so that you could keep closer tabs on everything they do. You know you’ve moved from being a concerned parent to a helicopter parent if your teen answers their cell phone by saying, “What did I do now?” Instead of seeing you as a partner in their lives, they can see you as overbearing and over-involved because of how you communicate with technology.
Overall, technology doesn’t have to be a wedge between you and your teen. On the contrary, it can be a great tool to improve communication between the two of you and to show your teen that you can adapt to their world. Here are a few simple ideas for you to connect with your teen.
- Send an encouraging text on “big event” days. Your words of encouragement can serve as a reminder that you care (without being blatant or nagging) as they prepare for their major test, class presentation, or team tryout.
- An occasional “out of the blue” text or post can bring a smile. Text a quote, picture, or Bible verse that reminds you of them. No need to send an explanation or long message. Short and sweet makes the point.
- Be courteous of time changes. If you are going to be late or away from home when you normally would be there, give your teen a call. You expect the same of her.
- Let your teen use you as her “out” in a socially or morally awkward situation. You can check in on your daughter if it’s a first date, school dance, sleepover, etc. A quick, “Everything okay?” is all it takes. If your teen feels uncomfortable being there, she can then say, “My Dad just sent me a text; he needs me to come home.”
- Let your child teach you a thing or two. Ask your teen to show you how to work your latest app or how post something on a site like Instagram. They’ll love the opportunity to be the one in control.
The means by which you communicate as a parent may never again be exactly the same as your teenager. Regardless if their “normal” makes sense to you or not, you still have opportunity love, acceptance, and Christlikeness to them in a way that a tweet or post never can. They don’t just get love from you in 140 characters. They get it for life.
Brian Housman is a minister, public speaker, husband and father to two teens. He is also the author of the Amazon Bestselling book Tech Savvy Parenting. He has led student and parent programs from coast to coast as well as several international locations. Find out more about him at www.360family.com and his blog www.techsavvyparenting.com.